Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Rondo in D major for Piano and Orchestra, K. 382

Written for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote the Rondo in D Major in 1782 as an alternate finale to his Piano Concerto No. 5, K. 175, which he had composed as a teenager almost a decade earlier. In the intervening years, he had quit his job at the Salzburg court (the Archbishop sent him off with “a kick on my arse,” as Mozart put it) and moved to Vienna to pursue a freelance career.

He was already known as the composer of the opera Idomeneo and was at work on Die Entführung aus dem Serail, but he wanted opportunities in concert as well as in the theater. So on March 3, 1782, he gave his first solo program in Vienna, which included the Piano Concerto No. 5 (really his first—the previous four were juvenile arrangements). For this occasion, he wrote the new finale, perhaps thinking it was a more stylish fit for the Viennese audience, or perhaps simply thinking he could do better at age 26 than he had at 17. Today, the Piano Concert No. 5 is usually performed with its original finale, and the Rondo is treated as a short standalone work for piano and orchestra.

To Mozart and his first listeners, it was a great success. Sending the score back to Salzburg later that March, he noted the Rondo made “such a furore in Vienna” and asked his father to “guard it like a jewel—and not give it to a soul to play.… I composed it specially for myself.” This initiated a period of piano-concerto writing; nearly every year through 1788, Mozart turned out between three to six more.

A rondo is a common last-movement form, especially for concertos, in which a recurring main theme alternates with contrasting episodes. This piece, however, is really a rondo in name only—coming closer to a variation form.

The orchestra presents the theme, marked Allegretto grazioso (moderately fast, graceful), before the piano responds with a solo variation. The orchestra reprises the tune, and then joins with the piano for a rippling triplet variation, picking up to rapid 32nd-notes. A D-minor variation is dusky and expressive, before a return to D major decorates with trills. Then a tempo change—to a lilting Adagio that briefly drifts through minor again, followed by a quick Allegro and piano cadenza. Finally, the theme returns again (this time with pizzicato strings). It’s everything you could want from Mozart in its most concise form—classical poise and playful virtuosity draped over a sense of aspiration and longing.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.